Toledo student wins state competition, heads to D.C.Written by John Rasche | | JRasche@toledofreepress.com
Makala White, 16, was sure that she had ruined her ranking in the seventh annual Poetry Out Loud (POL) state competition when a nervous hiccup caused her to forget a line during her last recitation. Her heart beat faster as she stood before the judges, her family and hundreds of other spectators while she struggled to find her place in the poem.
“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness! This is so sad,’” White said. “I knew that poem backward and forward but I just couldn’t remember the next line! I was the only one to mess up!”
White was reciting Joel Nelson’s “Equus Caballus,” which is a poem composed of 28 lines and uses words like “Eolithic” and “caissons.” If you think pronouncing the title is difficult, try reciting the poem verbatim in front of an audience of about 400 people. That is the nerve-racking situation that White found herself in as she stood upon the Matesich Theatre’s stage at Ohio Dominican University on March 24.
Poetry Out Loud is a nationwide contest that encourages high school youth to appreciate great poetry through memorization and recitation. The contest begins with students competing in their own individual classrooms. The winners then move on to a school-wide competition, then a state competition and finally a national competition.
The National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, in conjunction with Ohio Arts Council, funded this year’s state competition.
More than 600 hundred students from 42 schools across Ohio competed in the various statewide POL competitions, according to the Ohio Arts Council website. After the classroom-level and school-wide contests, 33 of those students went on to the state competition in Toledo.
In the end, White’s slip-up did not account for much; she still won first place in the Ohio state competition, receiving a $300 cash prize and an all-expense-paid trip (with a chaperone) to the national finals in Washington, D.C., on May 15.
“[The judges] were announcing the winners and I was sure that I wasn’t going to be placed in the top three,” White said. “When they didn’t call my name for runner-up, I was like, ‘What? Are you serious? I didn’t even get that?’ But when they gave me first place, I was so happy that I can’t even describe it.”
Toledo Early College High School, her school, also received $500 to purchase poetry books that will be accessible to the student body.
The five panel-judges for the POL event came from various backgrounds in poetry and education. Steve Abbott, for example, is a retired English professor from Columbus State Community College. Both Wendy McVicker and Nancy Kangas are Ohio Arts Council Residency Artists. Rose Smith is the associate editor at Pudding House Publications and Jeremy Glazier is an English professor from Ohio Dominican University. All five judges are published poets.
Each contestant selected three poems to recite from an extensive POL list of works. The students were then scored for their accuracy, physical presence, voice, articulation and the poem’s level of difficulty.
“Equus Caballus” was just one of the three poems White recited for the event. She also chose to present “The Canonization” by John Donne and “Song in the Front Yard” by Gwendolyn Brooks.
A strong recitation
“[White] exhibited all the qualities that I look for in a recitation of poetry,” Glazier said. “A strong recitation is one in which the speaker authentically embodies the voice and spirit of the poem, and it seems to me that that sense of authenticity is the key. A person could recite a poem perfectly, word-for-word, but if it lacks that elusive ‘je ne sais quoi’— what the poet Federico Garcia Lorca might call ‘duende’ — then it doesn’t succeed in moving me. White had that ‘duende’ in spades.”
White’s “duende” stems from an appreciation of poetry that extends further than reading and memorizing stanzas.
“When I find a poem that I really like, I embody myself in it,” she said. “I find inspiration in it. I don’t really have a favorite poet, because I don’t give as much attention to the poet as much as I do to the essence of the poem.”
White’s interest in poetry began only a few years ago, when her teachers at Toledo Early College High School first introduced her to serious literature, she said. Last year, she competed in her first POL competition and placed as runner-up at the school level. That experience encouraged her to try even harder in this year’s competition.
She rehearsed her performances with her teachers, family, and members of her congregation. She also started receiving coaching sessions from the Ohio Arts Council. From morning to night, White busily runs through the poems in her mind, ensuring that her performances will capture the essence of each poetic work. While watching television, she even recites the poems during commercial breaks.
“My help has been [as] the listener,” Jo-Lynn White, Makala’s mother, said. “All of her interest in poetry came from her teachers and her talent and had nothing to do with me. When she was runner-up last year, she set her goal to do better and that she did.”
On May 15, White will compete for the “best” poetry recital, a prestigious title with a very handsome reward. The national winner of the final competition in Washington, D.C., will receive a $20,000 scholarship. An additional $30,000 in cash and school stipends will be divided among other winners.
White will not be the only Ohioan to have gone this far in the POL competition. Jackson Hille, a fellow Ohio champion, won the first national competition back in 2006. Three years later, Ohio champion Mido Aly was placed in the top five national finalists.
If she wins, what will White do with the cash prize? She has many ambitious plans for the future, but does not know which goal to aim for first. Luckily, she still has a few more years of high school left to figure it out.
“I want to go into nursing in order to help people and to make them feel better,” she said. “I would also like to continue being an active member of West Central Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, perhaps even becoming a full-time ‘pioneer.’ But I also love language. There are several languages that I would like to study and interpret. Maybe I’ll be a sign language interpreter for the school district, just like my mom.”